The Complete History of How Bacon Took Over the World

And why we should maybe put a fork in it.

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The recent introduction of bacon sriracha lollipops into the marketplace — brought to you by the company behind vegan breast milk suckers — hardly made modern consumers bat an eye.

And that’s because the centuries old breakfast meat has infiltrated every aspect of foodie and consumer culture. Once surprising flavor combinations like bacon infused cupcakes, chocolates, and fast food milkshakes are now commonplace. There are bacon summer camps, bacon film festivals, bacon bars, baconnaise, bacon lip balm, soda, bandaids, air fresheners, lube (hey, Miley Cyrus is into it), and even bacon deodorant.

“When I saw a bacon shaving cream press release I thought that’s it, not only are [bacon and I] living apart, but we’re broken up,” Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin told TIME. “There’s nothing about bacon itself, it’s what people are doing to bacon.”

The food world regularly speculates that in spite of its ever-appealing taste, bacon mania has had its day. “When you see it in the mainstream … in the turnaround time for when Burger King puts forth these kinds of things … that’s how you know it has been dead for about three years,” said Tom Mylan, head butcher and co-owner of Brooklyn’s The Meathook.

But the world doesn’t seem to care. When Cowin was a guest judge in an October episode of Top Chef, she asked contestants to make interesting meals using food trends that were simply overdone to the point of boredom. Bacon was one of the contenders.

“I thought it had been obvious that bacon had jumped the shark, but apparently not everyone feels that way,” Cowin said. “People were on Twitter saying, ‘How could you say that?'”

Bacon by the Numbers

Even if bacon’s extreme mainstream-ness incites eye rolls from the fooderati, people across the country are still buying and eating the meat. Lots of it.

Americans eat almost 18 pounds of bacon a year, and considering how many people have pork-free dietary restrictions (due to religion, vegetarianism, or taste preferences), some bacon eaters are scarfing down way more than that figure. According to the National Pork Board, between 2001 and 2009, bacon volume in food services grew by almost 25%. There was an annual growth rate of 2.4% from 2011 to 2013.

And it knows no regional bounds. “Bacon mania is everywhere,” National Pork Board’s VP of domestic marketing Ceci Snyder told TIME.

“You can have a hipster who likes it and a regular at a state fair in Minnesota,” said Roni-Sue Kave, a New York-based homemade chocolate and candy maker who is famous for her bacon integrations. “I’ve shipped to Hawaii and Alaska, that’s what’s surprising to me. The universal appeal.”

How’d it get so big?

bacon milkshake

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It’s hardly as if bacon is a new product. The meat dates back to the Roman Empire, although it was called petaso at the time, and has a tradition of being cheap, available, easy to cook, consistently appealing to the taste buds, and having a place in various cultures.

“For some things, like with olive oil, technology has contributed a lot to people’s good products, but with bacon, it’s not like there wasn’t good bacon all along,” said bacon authority Ari Weinzweig. “It’s not like there was a new innovation.”

Weinzweig co-founded Zingerman’s, famous for its bacon offerings, in 1982, which was ahead of the bacon craze. While bacon has always been popular, Weinzweig noticed its rise as a cultural staple over the last decade because, “like all foods, there’s a radically higher awareness for better tasting products.”

Chef Hugh Acheson agrees. “The basic process of it has remained the same for 300 years or whatever,” he told TIME. “And I think that as kitchens in North America started to get back into more artisanally driven food and making thing from scratch again. Bacon was one of the first meat products you so getting made from scratch in a lot of kitchens because frankly it’s really easy to make bacon. It’s not really easy to make great bacon, but it’s pretty easy to make bacon.

Thus, given its lower level of charcuterie, the bacon influx allowed chefs to ease into the world of meat processing, and that’s when it started appearing on every menu and fitted into every sweet and savory form, be it topping a burger or getting incorporated into vegetable dishes.

“Seven or eight years ago it started to explode in the same way as small jam manufacturers and people growing mustaches and making their own beeswax candles again,” Acheson said. “It was a beautiful time.”

Snyder of the National Pork Board, notes that even in fast food chains, “There’s more expectations of bacon now. I think people expect better bacon honestly.”

She even attributes some of that growth to McDonald’s recent decision to use thicker apple wood smoked bacon in some of its burgers.

Can kitsch kill?

It’s the oversaturation of bacon novelty items that makes some foodies believe that the bacon trend has gone overboard.

Justin Esch, co-founder of J&D’s Foods, is in large part responsible for the bacon consumer culture. In 2007, he and his friend Dave Lefkow, founded their bacon-centric company with Lefkow’s winnings from America’s Funniest Home Videos. (His son had hit him in the face with a wiffle ball.)

J&D’s first creation and staple is bacon salt, which is exactly what it sounds like. But when an unpaid intern’s project of creating bacon lip balm went viral, the company realized that the way it would get free media for its more legitimate products (like bacon salt and baconnaise, sold in Kroger and Walmart) would be to create a string of ridiculous kitsch items for the holiday season. Thus bacon shaving cream, bacon lube, bacon soda, bacon coffins, and most recently bacon deodorant was born.

“We’re in the  PT Barnum marketing school,” Esch said of his PR savvy. While the novelty items make up approximately 10% of sales, “and that’s being generous,” he said that “it’s how you get everyone in the world to pay attention to you. How do you spend $500 and get 250 million press impressions in 72 hours?”

“Because it’s fun,” Esch said. “Because it tastes good. Because it’s interesting. Because it’s not depressing. I don’t need a jobs report every year.”

Bacon has risen to prominence in large part because of how it gets covered (and goes viral) in online media. It is written about everywhere from food blogs to general news publications. When HuffPost’s Kim Bhasin was the retail editor at Business Insider, he carved out a bit of a bacon niche for himself.

“Posts about bacon were pretty much guaranteed to attract eyeballs,” Bhasin said. “We wrote about bacon enough to spawn Bacon Insider, a parody page on Business Insider.”

Bhasin even began reviewing bacon-centric fast food dishes like Burger King’s bacon sundae. “And yes, it tasted terrible,” he said.

Foodbeast reporter Elie Ayrouth notes that although bacon stories don’t guarantee virality like they did perhaps in 2011 and 2012, growth hasn’t necessarily plateaued.

“While there will always be hot foods of the moment … the lingering difference is that bacon is a stand-alone product which makes it a much more evergreen topic,” Ayrouth told TIME. “Essentially, the bacon context is built-in, while stuff like cronuts and ramen burgers have to evolve in waves with respect to the underbelly of the Internet.”

Bacon will never die

In spite of regular predictions that bacon is done, or already was done two years ago, bacon purveyors just don’t see that as the case.

“I think that’s categorically false,” said Jack in the Box spokesperson Keith Guilbault, noting that sandwiches with bacon perform categorically better and sandwiches without bacon always get bacon addition requests. “Americans absolutely love bacon. It’s one of those flavors that adds so much life.”

Which is why Jack in the Box rolled out the limited time bacon milkshake last year.

“People said it was over what five, six years ago?” Esch said. “That’s why we’ve diversified. Srirarcha was the flavor of the year last year [so they made a Sriracha candy cane… but] I don’t think it will ever go away. It only gets bigger every year.

And even in foodie culture it still goes strong. This summer, David Burke opened a Bacon Bar in the James Hotel in Chicago. “Even at Bacon Bar, we see customers requesting more and more bacon on every sandwich,” Bacon Bar executive chef Rick Gresh said.

But even when chefs get sick of the bacon trend, they don’t think that bacon has lost its place in culinary culture. It’s just too tasty. “Look, there are some culinary fads that are really popular because they are really good,” Acheson said. “Soft center chocolate cake is a quintessential dessert. It’s like saying, eh, tiramisu jumped the shark.” He thinks that bacon should just go back to where it belongs rather than be used as a crutch in every type of food.

Sick of it as she is, Cowin told TIME that the morning of her interview all she could think of was a craving for a perfectly slick slab of bacon.

What’s Next? 

“I would like vegetables to be the new bacon,” Acheson said. “That’s what most excites me, and I think we owe it to the American farmer to make them that.”

And no, bacon Brussels sprouts don’t count.

“Although,” Acheson said, “they are delicious.”

4 comments
GarfieldGriffiths
GarfieldGriffiths

and to throw our hat into the bacon ring (is that a thing?) our event company is very proud of our newest way to eat bacon, and not feel guilty. The Great American Bacon Race: The Tastiest 5k on Earth.


Run 3.1 miles and eat bacon on the way, win win.

EllenKessler
EllenKessler

To think I was actually going to get a subscription to Time. That won't happen now that you've posted this dribble. Digusting.

ChristinaCali
ChristinaCali

Man...who doesn't love bacon?  As a matter of fact today I had 5 strips of bacon then did 250 squats thinking of the great taste of bacon.  Bacon is one of those guilty pleasures that we would take in any form!  I can literally put bacon in almost everything, but can you imagine bacon flavored ecigs?  I just recently tried flavored ecigs and in bacon ---- I might not feel the need to eat an entire package of bacon in one sitting.  Dear www.Zemocigs.com - I love your ecigarettes and would LOVE a new flavor called All You Can Smoke Bacon so that my hips won't grow!  Okay - there is my wish for 2013!